Acts of kindness, thoughtful words and good, long hugs shone a light into those darkest of days. But we also found that from the moment Lumi died, many people we were close to stopped contact with us. Or kept in touch but were awkward, skirting around our loss. We’ve spoken with other parents who’ve all said exactly the same thing. One wise mum told me the loss of important people in her life after her baby died felt like a second layer of grief.
I think that when something this big and this horrific happens to us, we look to the people around us to help make sense of our experience.
And we get it: that’s a big ask! For you, whose family member, friend or colleague has just lost a child, it is incredibly difficult to know what to say or do. Death is a subject we don’t talk about nearly enough in our society. When we’re confronted with it, many people feel deeply uncomfortable. The death of a child is particularly confronting because it feels unnatural, and uncomfortable to even think about. All these feelings are completely normal. But they shouldn’t stop you from being there for the bereaved person.
I know what my family needed in those first hours, days and weeks. But the more I hear about various loss parents’ experiences and read articles by mental health professionals about what to say to grieving parents… well, long story short: it’s clear that everyone has a different opinion, and every parent has their own needs.
So what should you do or say? It’s about showing that you’re there for them and taking their lead as to what’s helpful.
One thing every (or nearly every) parent will benefit from immediately after the death of their child is practical help. Don’t wait to be asked, but help in such a way that you’re still giving them space. For example, cook some meals and drop them at the front door. If they have other children, bring a care package of things to keep them busy. If they’re ok with people in the house, go round and do a bit of housework – a few loads of laundry, clean the kitchen, have a look round to see whether there are things they need that you can pick up from the supermarket.
Depending on the situation, other kinds of practical help may be useful, e.g. helping to organise the funeral, coordinating other family and friends arriving from out of town, organising childcare, taking dogs for a walk.
The first days and weeks after a death are often filled with busy-ness, family, logistics and events. The parents are likely to feel numb. Once all that’s over, things get quieter and they are left to find a way to keep living without their child. That’s when *expletive really hits the fan. That’s when they most need support.
So, we already know that what’s helpful is different for everyone. But there are some things that are likely to be helpful, and others are almost guaranteed to make it worse! Here are some guidelines:
Do say the name of their child and acknowledge that child’s life. If you have memories of their child, share them!
Do offer space for them to talk about what’s happened and how they’re feeling, if they want to.
Do be honest and say that it’s hard (or impossible) to find the right words, and that you don’t know how it feels – unless you’ve experienced the death of a child yourself, in which case this can be really helpful to share.
Do make practical suggestions about what you’re willing to do to help – for example, ask if you can come over and cook dinner once a week, or go for regular walks with them.
Do help to make that parent feel like themselves. That doesn’t mean ignoring the death of their child, but just being real with them. Loss parents often feel ‘untouchable’ because those around them are doing anything to avoid talking about what’s happened.
Don’t try to fix it. That means saying things about having another child, moving on with life, or suggesting that their child’s death was ‘meant to be’.
Don’t make religious comments unless you know the person holds these beliefs and will find it comforting.
Don’t say that you understand how they feel, if you’re relating their loss to your own loss of a parent or grandparent. A person whose child has died is probably going through something quite different.
And the biggest one of all: don’t stay away unless they’ve asked you to.
Remember: it’s much easier for bereaved people to ask for space than to ask for support.
Be there. Be practical. Be real. Be honest. Be open.
You can make a huge difference by helping bereaved parents to feel loved, heard and supported.
By: Jenny Zilmer, Writer and māmā to Lumi and Nora